The Jesus Prayer: A Personal Testimony
THE JESUS PRAYER
A PERSONAL TESTIMONY
I first embraced the Jesus prayer, which had been waiting for me all my life, of course, in 1975. I was in England to travel and to attend two conferences, one of which was the annual conference of the Society of SS. Alban and Sergius. At that Conference I bought a number of books, one of which was Orthodox Spirituality by “A Monk of the Orthodox Church,” who turned out to be the priest Lev Gillet who gave the daily meditations. The other book was On the Jesus Prayer by Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov. Each one fed the other’s insights as I read through them after returning home, and they became benchmarks in my journey to the Orthodox Church.
I said, “First embraced,” because I knew about the Jesus-prayer before that time. I had read Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, in which Franny Glass is obsessed by the prayer and wants to learn how to use it and what it’s for and all that. The other source of my knowledge was my ongoing visitations at St Tikhon’s Monastery and Seminary, South Canaan PA.
There is a clear pattern to the use of the Jesus Prayer. As you use it, the words proceed from your lips to your mind. This is the first step, but it is important that you mouth the words. You can use any pattern. I always used the simplest, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Since I’m conversant with Greek, I also used the shortest form we know, which is kyrie, eleison (“Lord, have mercy”) taken directly from the pages of the New Testament.
As you mouth the words, naturally you become acquainted with them. The practice of the prayer proceeds from the lips to the mind; this is inevitable because you begin to think about the words you say and to ask questions about their meaning.
When you seek for the meaning through the use of reason (and perhaps a good bible dictionary) you learn that Lord was the customary title not only for God in the Hebrew Scriptures, but it was also the title given to the Caesar, and thus you are making two statements in one: first, that Jesus, whom you are about to name, is in some way you cannot comprehend equivalent to God; second, that your allegiance is above and beyond the boundaries of your nation and its allegiances. Already in the 2nd century, the anonymous writer of the Epistle to Diognetus spoke of Christians as a “new race,” embracing but surpassing all national or racial allegiances, and who live as “resident aliens” no matter where they find themselves.
You discover that Jesus is both a proper name, related to Joshua in the Old Testament, and that at the same time it has the meaning of “savior” or “God is my savior,” “God is the one who will make me whole,” and the entire mission of Jesus is an exposition of this meaning. The name Jesus comes to exemplify his work and his words and his way in a nutshell.
Christ of course is the title that Christians give to Jesus as the anointed one of God. It is the Greek equivalent of messiah in Hebrew. It is not a last name although it already begins to look like one in the New Testament, since Paul’s writings are directed at people for whom this concept is foreign, and thus he seeks and uses other terms to speak to the culture where he finds himself. Yet the title remains, because it clearly links Christian belief to the Judaic tradition, upon which it builds and without which it loses meaning. It becomes a reminder that Jews and Christians are intertwined in faith and hope until the end of time, united in the One God.
Have mercy on me does not mean “take pity on me,” so much as it means, “give me largesse out of your bounty.” You are the leader; I am your subject. Even more, you are the physician and I am the patient. I am dependent upon your goodness and compassion to grant me what I need for healing. Matthew 9:27, 15:22, 17:15, 20:31; Luke 17:13, and 18:38f. give examples. This recognition enables us to see why Paul would refer to himself as the doulos tou Christou, the servant (really “slave”) of Christ. Orthodox Christians don’t speak much about “my personal relationship to Jesus;” in fact, the New Testament itself does not.
The relationship we have is one of a subservience that is mysteriously liberating and personally enabling and deeply therapeutic at the same time. This Jesus is related to God the healer of Israel, and becomes healer for your own inner strife, the separation you feel from the self you know you could be and the self you know you are. He is not my chum; he is my liberator.
The prayer is thus an engine for what we Orthodox call theosis, the process whereby little by little, spurt by spurt, we become transformed by God’s grace toward our divine origin and nature. We begin to appreciate the insight of St Irenaeus of Lyons: “the glory of God is a human being, fully revealed.” And we know that St Athanasius was correct when he said, “God became human in order that humans might become divine.”
You can only learn these things inwardly through the practice of prayer, and in particular the Jesus prayer reminds you over and over again of who this Jesus is and who he may become for you.
So the prayer proceeds, in time, to that final step where it becomes cordial. It is prayer in the heart, but the mind is not left behind and neither, sometimes, are the lips. You still pray aloud from time to time, but the prayer prays itself within you. You feel certain warmth in your heart. At night you will awaken and discover that the words are forming themselves in your mind, even as you have been sleeping. The world begins to be transformed before you. No longer do strangers surround you; everyone is potentially a friend, and you react to people out of that sureness. You begin to discover compassion deep within you. You weep at the sadness, the brutality, the sheer stupidity and folly of debased humanity. You yearn for all to come to their senses and recognize their relatedness to other people, to the whole creation, in fact. The destruction of the planet is also a cause for weeping and little victories for the environment become occasions of deep joy. There is more, and the prayer will go on in its quiet way transforming you.
The Apostle Paul spoke of this in II Corinthians: “Beholding the glory of the Lord, we all are being transformed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another… We have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.” We possess what we cannot possess, we know what we cannot know, we become what we cannot become: truly and fully alive in God.
Fr Gabriel Rochelle
St Nicholas Day, 2006